Merry Christmas from Geneva (where it was forbidden for two centuries…)
First and foremost: A Merry Christmas. To my
friends and acquaintances and kind clients: The year has been so dense with
work, especially these past four months, I was unable to write cards and
letters using my growing collection of fountain pens. Perhaps to the joy of
those on the receiving end, who have to deal with my handwriting…
Just a few notes. Christmas is officially on the 25th, but in ancient times, days ended at sunset, not at midnight, so Christmas Eve was actually the beginning of the 25th. Celebrating this way has been trending of late, apparently, though on a personal note, I never knew any different, thanks to my Bavarian Catholic mother, who always celebrated on the 24th after 5 p.m.
As for good wishes and cards and such…. There are twelve days of Christmas, so there’s still time… These days were important to Europeans (before there was a Europe) in the days of yore, before Christmas was chosen to preempt Pagan rituals… In German-speaking countries and regions, you will often hear talk of the “Raunächte,” rough nights (or Rauchnächte, the smoky nights, because evil spirits needed to be smoked out), which allegedly go back to Druidic times. There is some debate on exactly which days they fall on and how many there are, but here’s the deal: Essentially, the first is on the 21st, then 24/25th, and so forth. Sometimes the turn of the year is cut out, but that would assume a fixed calendar. Logical, too, would be a thirteenth, so as to comply with the lunar calendars of yore. The Rauhnächte are also known for making predictions for the coming year. “Listen” to your dreams, they say.
If you don’t like political commentary, please accept best wishes and stop reading…
Just a word on saying Merry Christmas, which has been unbelievably politicized in
No one ever officially forbade saying Merry Christmas. The idea that it could be offensive may have been raised, and in a secular state, in which all religions must be free to practice, being a bit aware of the other’s beliefs and traditions is merely polite and rather than punishment. It also ensures peace among believers, since the battle of faiths have been among the bloodiest in the history of the human race. Besides, looking beyond one’s narrow bailiwick is always interesting, right?
So the bottom line is this: There is no war on Christmas. Other than the frenzied consumerism that accompanies this very high Christian holiday, and that leads people to elbow and honk their way through the first three weeks of December each year, irrespective of their fellow humans trying to get through life as well, to then collapse from overeating and overconsuming. A generalization, I am sure.
The war on Christmas is also the noisy and synthetic culture war triggered by gasbags who earn millions be dividing the USA into social and political silos, thereby creating captive audiences for themselves and their advertisers, of course. They spread ignorance and promote lazy thinking. It’s all about dollars and cents, of course, so it fits in perfectly with the predatory economic system, which praises the person who’s become rich, no matter the means. I’ve written about this in greater detain here.
Also worthy of note is this: Those who holler and scream about the “war on Christmas,” from Donald Trump to tend to be the spiritual descendants of none other than Jean Calvin, Geneva’s most famous immigrant, who rejected Christmas entirely as a man-made feast. And so did many of his followers and devotees in his lineage, like the Puritans, who did not like the rowdiness around Christmas, as well as the Presbyterians (like Trump). Worse yet, Christmas is considered a Catholic, hence Popish holiday, and is therefore dangerously international. If you want to read some great conspiracy nonsense, read up on the 1928 elections in the USA.
the Jesus armed with an AR-15, killing infidels, hating health care, and loving
Capitalists, bigots, misogynists, racists and predatory billionaires is a far sight
from the Prince of Peace generally touted in Christmas songs piped into
supermarkets and other consumer venues. That is a good thing to keep in mind.
Under 700 words. Merry Christmas, and don’t
forget my tip jar.
The sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 followed shortly thereafter by the entire Iron Curtain came as no real surprise to me, and I was not alone. This is not some idle boast with 20/20 hindsight. For a couple of years prior already, the pressure had been mounting on this monolithic razor blade cutting the world in two. It was overly ripe for the fall.
I had been to East Germany several times, birthplace of my now ex-wife, and home to her huge tribe of relatives (her grandmother had married a widower with three children and had then had three of her own with him, who all, amazingly, survived World War Two, if I remember correctly). I had had long conversations with people there, read the local papers, which pretended that everything was fine and all bad things came from the West. Every encounter with an East German involved a liturgy of complaints about the absence of goods … not money. Things. One of my wife’s cousins couldn’t find a replacement car door, for example, because the Five-Year plan that had been agreed to around then didn’t include passenger doors for the Trabants that year. Another cried after seeing all the East-German wares like those blue polka-dotted Bürgl earthenware cups and the famous “smoke” figures from the Vogtland region being sold at a Christmas market in Frankfurt on the Main in the west. Those goods were not available drüben, over there, at home, in East Germany
Fulfilling shopping was not the only
problem. A friend had been in the NVA (the National People’s Army) and reported
driving around drunken officers all day in decrepit equipment. And you could
see the degraded barracks, the quiet rejection of Russia and things Russian —
most people dislike occupiers, regardless, so don’t think this was just
“Communism.” People who grew up learning Russian in school hardly
speak a word anymore or refuse to. At any rate, all of what I saw contradicted
the apocalyptic vision of ultra-powerful Eastern Hordes often referenced in
western media with glee and with proof by grainy black and white photos.
Most revealing, perhaps, was a simple
conversation, during which I and my interlocutor compared east and west, a very
frequent and prolific topic. I casually referred to where I lived as “back
in Germany” (bei uns in Deutschland).
She interrupted me: “This is also Germany.” In that instant, I
realized that Bismarck’s claim that Germany would need a civil war once a
century to stay united was no longer applicable. This was a unified country
with an impenetrable and cruelly ridiculous border running through it.
Impenetrable, but not permanent.
One just had to hope that a war would not
be necessary to break down that wall…
A bubble was growing in East Germany, that
was for sure, a quiet, unspectacular one. A bigger one was beginning to bulge
elsewhere, however, namely Hungary, and thanks to my first book contract with
APA Guides, I was able to drive there often as a Mr. Nice Guy writing about
travel and culture, essentially harmless stuff for the over-political
The Hungarians had been chomping at the bit for a while already. Crippling foreign debt and palpable weariness at the leaden straitjacket imposed by a stuffy, unimaginative squad of corrupt apparatchiks was creating a kind of mental rebellion. Judging from the many essentially freedom-fighting idols who appeared as statues, or on the bills, it would appear to anyone with a bit of a sense of observation, that Hungarians like their freedom, and they don’t like to be told what to do, and if that is the case, they tend to become ornery and uncooperative. Let me mention Kossuth, Deàk, Ràkoczi, the many poets (Petöfi, Ady, Jozsef…), who are naturally inclined to free thinking, and of course Dozsa György, who led a massive peasant revolt against a corrupt aristocracy and died horribly, in 1514, along with many of his followers. A friend of mine, a simple seamstress out east, could recite the national poet Sàndor Petöfi’s famous “Talpra, Magyar” (On your feet, Magyars) that roused the Hungarians against the Austrians on March 15, 1848. From her mouth, it always sounded suspiciously contemporaneous, and very passionate.
Another snapshot: In August ’88, in a
crowded csàrda near Tiszafüred on the
Great Puszta, I had jokingly called the waitress “elvtàrs,” which
means comrade. She yelled back at me for all to hear: “The only thing red with me is my
dress,” which was indeed red.
My contacts in the country were all turning
west. I crossed the border five times in ’88 without ever being searched.
Unlike my crossings into East Germany, which never took less than three hours.
I even wrote to editors in the USA (the big magazines, hoping to get The Scoop)
that Hungary was almost out of the East Bloc and the Iron Curtain was now a
flimsy, rusting reminder of past failures. I explained why I thought it would
happen…. “Dear Mr. Radkai, that is all too speculative” was the
standard response. The US media simply loved its cloak-and-daggery East Bloc,
with its run-down buildings, barbed wire as a metaphor, the sinister cement
posts, so dramatic when displayed in grainy black and white on the broadsheets.
It was not all lucubration. There was some action as well. For example, in late June ’88, a massive demonstration was held in Budapest against the systematization (modernization) project initiated by Ceaușescu in neighboring Romania, which would have seriously affected the majority Hungarians in Transylvania (the USA still considered Ceaușescu one of the better guys in Eastern Europe). After much sending out, the Berkshire Eagle picked up my report on it, bless their soul. A year later, June 16, 1989, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum as a kind of opposition pool, the country re-buried the “hero” of the 1956 rebellion, Imre Nagy, along with Pal Maléter, Miklos Gimes, Geza Losonczy and Jozsef Szilagyi. An empty coffin was added to represent the thousands of Hungarians who had also perished fighting off the Soviet army. It was a huge demo.
But lots more was happening. In May, guards were removed from the border, an open invitation to use Hungary as an escape route. Also, on June 27, Gyula Horn was at the western border to ceremoniously cut open the Iron Curtain (I have a piece of it). In August and September, East German refugees started entering the country, allegedly to go on vacation: Hungary had always been known as “the country for encounters”…. my ex-wife’s family would come to the Balaton in summers to meet their East German relatives. These vacationers now spawned a refugee crisis that ultimately forced the Hungarian government to do the right thing and let them emigrate westward. The trickle became a flood.
A friend of mine, Ingrid Heller, kept a diary of her escape with her two teenagers:
Budapest, August 23
We went straight to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. We
hoped to get some assistance there. But the embassy was closed. All I could see
was the locked gates, the bell, and the guard house and Hungarian sentinel.
Four youths came up from behind and stormed the bell. As if it were a life
saver, I thought. A member of the embassy staff came out and handed us some
flyers through the gate. They pointed the way to the Church of the Holy Family
in Zugliget district.
We headed to the church. The embassy had set up a kind of emergency space
in a garage in back of the church. They were taking the applications for
passports. We had hidden passport in the pages of books to avoid being noticed
by the East German customs officers.
Then the East German “tourists” started
collecting like the birds on Hitchcock’s jungle Jim at the West German embassy
in Prag. And soon the Czechs had to relent and let them go. The East Germans at
home, meanwhile, were not totally passive. I remember hearing that people wanting
to move from Dresden in ’86 were giving the reason as “lack of access to
western television,” though I suspect that was apocryphal. But it referred
to the fact that western TV signals did not reach the great city on the Elbe,
which became known as the “Valley of the Know-Nothings” (Tal der Ahnungslosen). In September ’89, they began to demonstrate,
culminating in a huge march in Leipzig. The SED government had no cogent
response, and repression was not an option, most probably because the USSR
under Gorbachev was no longer prepared to back violence. So, whether leaving
the country or marching in the streets, people were “voting with their
feet,” was a popular saying.
The Wall falls
But in October ’89, I still had to order a
visa to enter East Germany. I was planning an one of those cultural-lifestyle
articles for a magazine, this time on Frederic the Great, who had palaces in what
was now West Berlin and Potsdam in
the East. My visa for multiple crossings was for November 12. So I reserved a
train ticket from Munich to Berlin for Nov. 10, giving myself a few days to do
research and visit friends in West Berlin – yes, my young readers, there were
days when you could work at a human pace, read books, dig deeply into your
subjects, and have a real social life with flesh and blood people… I then went
back to my daily routines, writing scripts for the Deutsche Welle, reporting,
preparing more guide books, and, of course, listening intently to short-wave
radio, as was my wont.
On Thursday, November 9, 1989, I was packing and listening to the news in the evening. There came a really strange report from Dresden. Under pressure, Günther Schabowski, a party secretary, had just suggested that private citizens in East Germany could travel freely to West Germany. It was a somewhat confusing message, which directed people to get emigration visas as usual, and then stating, but permitting private travel abroad with short-term permissions (Die Genehmigungen warden kurzfristig erteilt). History has shown us how precarious the situation really was, even the NVA (the army) was mobilized later on, which could have produced an unbelievable bloodbath, but the East Germans heard it as permission to cross the border. And after some hesitation, they rushed it, notably in Berlin, while millions of West Germans sat riveted to their TV sets, glued to their radios and newspapers (the good ole days).
By the 10 p.m. news, it was clear that
something apocalyptic was under way. East Germans were coming across the border
without restrictions. And I stood in my living room listening, packing, mouth
open, and suddenly realized there were
tears streaming down my face.
On November 10, I took the night train to
Berlin. It slinked and slithered through East Germany, slowing down as it was
supposed to, when passing stations on the way, but never stopping, giving us an
almost eerie sight of dusky platforms crowded with East Germans wanting to just
go, go, go. Because the second night was the real one. Until then, there was
fear that the border would slam shut behind those taking tentative steps west.
Or worse, the regime would suddenly crack down on the people who had exposed
themselves in an explosion of euphoria.
Berlin in the morning. It was ice cold. But
the sidewalks were bustling, the traffic dense notably with those strange East
German cars, the Trabants and the Wartburgs, and the occasional Lada or Dacia
(franchises of Fiat and Renault). I deposited by bags at the friends’ place
where I was staying and soon joined the thousands of West Berliners and
tourists gathered at the Wall. I found a spot not far from the Brandenburg Gate.
Climbing onto it was forbidden. It was dangerous, because the other side was
essentially a minefield. Many were trying to chip away at it, the so-called Mauerspechte, wall woodpeckers. That, too,
was prohibited. In front of me, a Japanese fellow had showed up with a
stonemason’s hammer, a huge chisel, gloves, and began whacking away. Bits of
painted concrete flew in all directions, the wall shook. I picked up a few
pieces. A mounty showed up, confiscated the man’s tool…
East Germans wandered through the city. You
could hear them from their dialect. Many wanted bananas, even the KaDeWe had
run out, that grandiose department store that was built just to thumb a
consumerist nose at the goods-challenged East. I heard that an employee of the
KaDeWe had gone into a cheap discounter’s to purchase more bananas … Lines in
front of a sex shop… That, too, of course. The East was quite puritanical…
But was this real? It did not feel real at
all. It felt more like some magical moment, and soon the Big Brothers would come
and say: “OK, folks, party’s over.”…. That did not happen. The next
day, a Sunday, I headed to the Interior
Ministry in East Berlin to get my visa. Two hours at Checkpoint Charlie. The Iron
Curtain was open one-way only. I changed the statutory 25 deutschmarks for 25
The ministry was in chaos. Journos running
about, officials pale and wide-eyed, travelers wondering where to go, what to
do …. I found the office I needed, got my visa and asked casually: Should I
cross the city again, or can I circle the city and go to Potsdam directly…. I
had reserved at the Cecilienhof, the famous hotel where Churchill, Truman and
Stalin had met in July ’45… “Uh, no you have to go to Gleiwitz.” I
didn’t look at my visa. Trudged back to the Checkpoint, bought some chocolate cake
on the way for my friends in the west. Waited another two hours. By the time I
got through, the cake was mostly eaten.
The rest of the story is available here on my blog (www.journos-blotter.com), and is quite strange,
since I actually ended up in the eastern zone without a visa. In a nutshell: As
it turned out, Gleiwitz was the autobahn crossing, and I had requested a train
crossing because I was on foot. Secondly, my visa was not a multiple visa, as applied
for, but a single crossing.
Let me just add this: When I reached
Potsdam thanks to a kindly pensioner who picked me up on the breakdown lane of
the autobahn —after changing another 25 deutschmarks into ostmarks — I asked a
young woman for directions to the Cecilienhof. She told me, and then asked
where I was from. “The USA,” I replied. She spontaneously hugged me
and gave me a friendly kiss. It was quite a surprise. So I trudged, exhausted,
towards my hotel. On the way I tried to get rid of all those eastern bills. I
found an open book shop, and bought several classic novels, books of poetry,
some philosophy. When that historically famous palace hotel appeared before me,
a thought crossed my mind: The war is finally over, let the peace begin.
The Kohl government rushed to consolidate
the openings and bridge the country’s division. The effort was boosted no doubt
by the enormous good-will of people in Germany and abroad, the sheer sense of
“Yes!” of optimism, of welcome for this new age of international
understanding. The People had ultimately won. The bizarre Communist governments
fell one after another, some in blood, like Romania, others just crumbled. In
1990, I covered the first elections in Hungary. The Communist Party was
running. I spoke to their reps, and they smiled and said: “If we pass the
5% mark, we’ll be happy.” That would have meant at least representation in
the parliament. They reached about 3% if I recall…
Yet, as the curtain fell, new walls went up
in people’s minds. In Germany, the westerners got suspicious and snarky about
the East Germans, especially the Saxons, whose dialect grated on their
countrymen’s ears. The easterners created the “Besserwessi,” the
western know-it-all ( a play on the word Besserwisser),
a kind of carpetbagger, who came and seduced the womenfolk with charm and money
(this strange hallucination is not confined to Germany, by the way, it’s
something visceral that one finds in xenophobes and racists of all stamp). Then
the westerners started speaking of the nebulae,
the NEuen BUndesLändern, the new
Länder of unified Germany and their bizarre customs. There were also the
“Wendehälse,” the European wrynecks, able to turn its head 180
degrees, like the now suddenly former Communist. A cousin of my wife’s, for
instance, had been an army officer and had always expressed his anger at
“that American” whom he was not allowed to meet, because he was a
“holder of secrets.” Suddenly, he wanted to have a beer with me. Then
came Ostalgia, nostalgia for the East (Ost). Today, some of those old problems
still plague the eastern Länder,
Bit by bit, though, the country did grow back together again. It meant huge investments. There still are differences, and they are always dangerous, because they are visceral. Maybe the jokes were needed to create a bit of excitement and take away some of the raw emotion. But every now and then I will pick up the bit of Wall, or look at my six inches of barbed wire that cut the world in two. And inevitably a tear or two will form as I think of all those people who suffered and continue suffering from the hubris of small-minded men who still use the age-old divide-and-conquer method to maintain their power.
Freelancers and the self-employed seldom go on real vacations. Especially since the advent of instant and frenetic communication, which keeps us in line better than one of Calvin’s egregious ordonnances. But….
… when I do choose to step out of the daily grind, it’s usually to go someplace where the electronic cookie monster is less active, or at least where the barriers to get online are higher or impossible to surmount. It’s a bit of a risk, of course, clients are impatient, but it’s only for short periods … This year, 2019, thanks to some friends and neighbors, we went on a seven-day boat trip exploring the Gulf of Fethiye on the southern corner of the country’s western coast, near to where the Mediterranean meets the Aegean.
Fethiye, a bustling town of about 80,000, is in fact a vacation destination in Turkey, which explains why the plane from Istanbul, a massive 777, was packed to the gills. It landed in Dalaman, after which we took a bus to Fethiye to spend one night in a pleasant hotel by the sea. The next day, we met up with our friends from Geneva, a Turco-Swiss family, and headed to the pier, where the Seahorse awaited, fueled and stocked up with food and water, of course. The boat is a gulet, a traditional two-master, whose sails, I later found out, are not really used anymore, unless there is an emergency. The boats were used for carrying freight and are therefore quite large and tend to roll easily.
By midday on the 3rd , the seven expected families were now all on board, the bags were stashed in the cabins (each with a small bathroom), which were fairly hot and musty. No surprise, since the temperature outside was about 37 °C. They would be air-conditioned twice or three times a day to avoid wasting generator fuel, I guess. As it turned out, hardly anyone slept in the cabins anyway, since the weather was dry throughout…. The teenagers on board rapidly occupied the sea of mattresses over the wheelhouse, which gave a spectacular view of the night skies. Others found space over the cabin section under a canvas an acre in size that kept all protected from the imperious sun. I staked a claim on the generous divan aft, which gave a glimpse of the sky and left enough space for my legs…
In addition to the twenty-one passengers, there were six crew members. The captain and owner of the ship is Mehmet Avcu, a wiry fellow with a deep knowledge and love of the sea and the local history. A 20-plus year stint with the Turkish Navy left him with a slightly commandeering tone, but whenever we had a question about strange creatures or local lore, we could just pick his brain. He was the boss on board, as tradition has it, and his word was gospel. He not only steered the ship to the right places and kept operations running smoothly, but also turned into a veritable encyclopedia of information about marine life and local history. Spotting that some of us were also interested in the region, he didn’t hesitate to take us on tours onto the land. One day it was an island with a few Byzantine ruins and a few of goats, another time it was to visit a farming settlement on a spit of land sparsely covered with olive trees, Turkish pines, carob trees… .
We set off. The sea was slightly choppy for the first hour or so, giving all a chance to test their seaworthiness. We soon found a quiet space at the foot of a craggy mountain – all mountains are craggy here – in a pleasant cove, where lunch was served on the deck aft: plates of different salads and vegetables, broccoli in a lemony sauce, a dish of charred eggplant, rice pilaf, a mixed salad, and purslane simply dressed with yogurt (a ubiquitous sauce in Turkish cuisine, it is a little richer than many yogurts available in Europe). The salt and pepper on the table was augmented by a jar of pul biber, crushed red peppers, and a bottle of nar ekşisi, a sticky, sour, fruity balsamico made of pomegranates.
As for activities, well…. swimming, snorkeling, and, for a surcharge, diving with aqualungs. The younger ones quickly discovered the thrill of flying off the taffrail, while the adults usually used the starboard ladder to get down to the sea, which was, as usual, blue and clear, and very warm. Two of the teenagers opted for genuine diving. I chose to snorkel with my 15-year-old daughter, who received her real salt-water baptism in these glorious waters.
A few hours after lunch, we raised the anchor and moved off to another cove for dinner (always around 8 pm) and to spend the night. A few more dives into the dark and inviting waters closed off that first day. Quickly, almost surreptitiously, all made their respective beds and went to sleep. The sea was mirror calm, but with a gentle swell that rocked boat from side to side. It was like being in a cradle again. Other boats could be seen (as every night thereafter) in the night, their position lights vying for attention with the stars, those points of safety that have shepherded mariners across the Seven Seas for eons. At some point in the night, the cicadas went to sleep, apparently all at once.
This established the pattern of the next six days. Three opulent meals shared at the large table punctuated the flow of time. Breakfast with cheeses, jams, fruit, and eggs sometimes hard-boiled, sometimes scrambled or fried; lunch with an array of cold dishes, rice, stews; dinner which sometimes included charcoal-broiled fish or meat done on a curious grill hanging off the starboard rail near the bow. And always accompanied by the delicious Turkish breads also made freshly onboard. One night, after a few glasses of raki loosened the limbs and spirits, there was some singing (Turkish love songs, an old Viking song in Swedish, …) followed by dancing on the forever gently swaying deck.
Time on the Seahorse flowed quietly along, with endless hours chatting, staring out to sea, reading, playing cards or backgammon, and naturally swimming. The use of goggles to swim made the activity far more interesting than the usual lengths in a pool. The rocky seabed made for particularly clear water, through which one could see small colonies of long-spine sea urchins and strange sea cucumbers resembling bits of rubber hose. We spotted a few small rays, otherwise there were just schools of minnow-like fish, who would scamper away when we came near them, glittering in the sun — though one passenger did try angling, without success — but did bring back garbage that others had decided to dump into the sea, plastic bags, empty cans, metal caps, and bits of rope.
Every now and then we’d leave our floating home to rejoin the community of landlubbers. One time it was to the diminutive Karacaoren island to stagger through Byzantine ruins and untamed brush in 40-degree heat. The next expedition was to Gemiler Island to explore more Byzantine church ruins and watch the sun go down in a spectacular canvas of warm colors. One fellow who allegedly walked these rocky, dusty, rugged slopes was none other than St. Nicholas of Myra, the gentleman who later became Santa Claus. While that does sound a little stretched, one does wonder how in earth people back in the 6th or 7th centuries built these fairly large structures, or the spectacular covered staircase that leads up to the highest church?
It was not all Byzantine. Göbün, on the northwestern entrance of the gulf, features some Lycian graves that were up on a cliff side (unreachable in the burning sun) and the remains of a Roman bath now half submerged. The narrow strip of land is inhabited by farmers in jerry-rigged dwellings. According to Mehmet, they are more or less squatting the land and arguing with the government for official rights to it.
On a more contemporary note: We also stopped at the port of Göcek, a favorite hub of yachtsmen apparently, whose presence spawned numerous chic shops and restaurants mostly with inflated prices. At the entrance of the bay, a long, stern-grey, ship-sized yacht, the 126-meter Flying Fox, allegedly belonging to Jeff Bezos. No one was quite sure. There was some buzz on board about that.
All in all, it was a beautiful trip. In retrospect, the coves and inlets, bays and beaches flow into one another in memory. The conversations were fun, sometimes rich. I scanned some of the books fellow passengers were reading and found one crew member reading a work by Tolstoy, the title was a question, so it may have been the essay “What Is Art?”. On the crew’s kitchen table lay a book on Latin America. Another was reading Bulgakov’s Master and Margerita. In fact, I was told that Russian literature is popular in Turkey… By the time we returned to Fethiye on Friday, we had all made friends, created a WhatsApp group, and sworn contact with one another. Stepping onto the hard pier was not all that easy. The sun, now untampered by the sea breeze, hammered down, and the speed of the small town For days, our blood had been rocked by the sea, and, as if by dint of resonance, our bodies continued to feel the motion for days.
Watch lovers, collectors, repairmen and -women all face a core issue: How to determine whether a watch is running on time and whether it might need fixing.
Here’s the situation any watch fan might face: You’re at a flea market, a real one with regulars peddling what they found in the attic, and you see an old Angelus. The dial is all vintage geekiness, but showing its age, which you write it off as patina. The case might be scratched, along with the crystal, the band needs replacement…. The real question is whether its heart is beating properly? It might go ticktock, but unless you are the love child of Viola Smith and Gene Krupa (and even then…), you will only know that the mainspring is wound and the escapement is sort of functioning.
Ticks and tocks
Because an escapement mechanism is a little more complex than what the ear can pick up. The ticktock sound is actually made up of three different ticks and tocks, as the impulse pin hits the pallet fork slot (in the rear), the entry stone at the end of the lever unlocks the wheel, and the fork hits the impulse pin again at the “back” of the lever. In fact, there are more sounds coming from the mechanism, but the real point is this: The best way to test a mechanism is by acoustic means. And a small industry has emerged that does just that, supplanting, in some ways , the old way of testing, which was to check with an accurate timegiver, like an observatory.
The solutions out there are mostly for professionals, and they do good work, of course. The watch fan and collector may want to grab one for home use, however.
Fast reading…. a must thin these days of instant gratification.
A few months ago, though, a friend tipped me off to a small company located in Cortaillod, near Neuchâtel, which has come up with a number of products that connect the professional and consumer worlds mainly through design. Oneof – the name is a little odd for Anglophones – was founded by Jean-Charles Rousset and Emmanuel Baudet, who were part of the TAG Heuer crew that produced such wonders as the prizewinning Carrera Mikrogirder. The two men were perfect complements to each other. Rousset, a materials engineer by training, was in charge of innovation projects for TAG Heuer under the Jean-Christophe Babin, and Emmanuel Baudet, a research engineer at Lausanne’s famous EPFL specialized in instrumentation and magnetism. They collaborated on the Carrera MikroPendulumS double tourbillon, which included a high-frequency magnetic oscillator.
In 2017, Rousset and Baudet decided to strike out on their own, and so they founded their company. The aim was to revitalize the measurement tools used in boutiques and at workshops where watches are repaired. “Everything is sexy these days,” Rousset told me when I dropped by the company. “Vacuum cleaners are sexy, hair-dryers are sexy.” Naturally, their products are designed to be sexy, too, which means excellent materials, and, these days, portability. They have essentially three key products. A watch tester and demagnetizer for retailers, which has already found its way into a number of boutiques. It is easy to use, requires little training for personnel, and can therefore be used as a teaser of sorts to satisfy a customer who has magnetized a watch (this happens very frequently, by the way).
Being consumer-oriented, though, Rousset and Baudet decided to make a version for the collector, whether upscale or average… The Accuracy2, which retails at CHF 269, or about $269, is a little box made of lightweight anodized aluminum with a soft covering, fits in the hand or pocket. It is minimalistic in style, recalling the LaCie external hard disc of the Porsche Design studio. The logo on top, two squarish “Cs” facing each other, is a practical decorative element in good Bauhaus style: it’s where you’ll place your watch once the Accuracy2 has been connected to your handheld device or tablet.
The Accuracy2 does what all testers are supposed to do. It will show the three peaks of the ticktock, and determine the beat, which is the difference between the tick and the tock: A value of 0ms is outstanding, a value of 7 or 8 ms means there’s something wrong with the escapement and it probably needs adjusting. The rate of the watch is automatically determined, and the lift is estimated, whereby most watchmakers will prefer using amplitude, according to Rousset.
A similar product has been manufactured by a Geneva-based company called Lepsi. Their Watch Analyzer, for example, will do what any tester must: Measure rate variation, amplitude, and beat error quickly, and then reproduce the results on a smartphone or tablet. They also have a portable solution (the Chrono), which connects to a smart phone and is in the same price range as the Oneof mentioned above. But Lepsi has gone a step further with a convenient wireless demagnetizer, which will identify immediately whether your watch has been zapped by magnetic waves in the first place, and it will demagnetize it as well. Just press the button it it has turned red.
There are other solutions. Browsing the web, you will quickly stumble across Ofrei’s tester, which no doubt does the job, identifying beat rates of up to 43,500 vph, and with a preset lift angle of 52°. It’s not expensive ($189,95), according to the O. Frei website), but, to be honest, it’s not the kind of equipment you want lying around your luxury boutique or well-appointed home… It’s baroque, to say the least, but for those wanting the True Geek look, it’s good and affordable.
My mother, Karen Radkai, was a remarkable photographer and an edgy personality.
In late 2017, I received an email from the “Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí” in Figueres with a special request: They needed biographical information on my mother, Karen Radkai, for a pending photography exhibition called “The Women who photographed Dalí” based on their collection. They also needed some photographic material.
The request serendipitously
dovetailed with my slow, but painstaking work on a biography of my mother and
father, both photographers of some note, especially around the mid-20th
century. And so, I ultimately wrote the entry to the exhibition’s catalogue. It
is not a “private view.” My copious notes and memories are for
another time and a fuller publication.
“What doesn’t kill us, makes us harder…” The famous quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, appropriately taglined “How to philosophize with a hammer,” rings in my ears when I think of my mother, Karen Radkai. She was not the easiest person to be around or to grow up with. She was, however, someone who left a mark, and lots of photographic material.
Brash, brilliant, outspoken and highly
opinionated, she could make enemies out of friends within minutes, but could
also attract the loyalty of those who were willing to give her space, who
recognized the person behind the lens, who saw and appreciated the very fine –
and extremely myopic – eye she had. She was also ambitious, had endless energy
resources, and a kind of resilience that could drive any normal person to
distraction. A large part of the energy came from her passion for her work, as
such. She had the great good fortune of living at a time when photography had reached
a kind of creative apotheosis and was firmly in the hands and fingers of a small,
busy, gifted elite of perceptive editors, publishers, and photographers, of
She was born in 1919, in Munich. She once
told me that she had already started photographing as a child. It was a hobby
she enjoyed, and somewhere amongst her papers, I do hope someday to find some
of those old shots. Otherwise, among her earliest memories, was sleeping in a
bathtub, because the inflation in the early 1920s in Germany had wiped out the
family fortunes. Abandoned by her parents, who separated soon after her birth, she
was sent to a convent, where, by her own account, she acquired the discipline
that she maintained her entire life.
As a teenager, she left Nazi Germany for the USA, where her mother had moved to about eight years prior. She was working as a stylist in New York in the mid-1940s when she met a dashing Hungarian émigré, who was already a fairly well-established photographer, my father, Paul Radkai. He let her have his studio to work in and experiment – according to him. Her boundless energy and ambition bore fruit. Soon she became a protégé of the notorious Alexey Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar.
She was twenty-nine when the magazine sent her on assignment to post-civil-war Greece to photograph Queen Frederica (herself a German granddaughter of Emperor Wilhelm II). While the pictures of that job are unavailable, I do own a stunning vignette from that journey that tells the entire story of my mother’s photographs and perhaps reveals the artistry of photography itself: She found the subject somewhere in the war-ravaged country. A man stands. He is looking down at an elderly woman shining one of his shoes. She is almost prostrate. The man towers over her. My mother, I realize looking at the image, did not actually seize that image. She saw it coming and caught the millisecond of the man’s contemptuous look. It also summed up a deep-seated feeling she had about how men treated women.
Her career was a steep upward curb for many
years, despite personal setbacks and a marriage that went south for too many
complicated reasons to enumerate. She had in all four children, but her true
companion was her work, and that made her a favorite of many VIPs, particularly
from the world of film and music. The childhood of my sisters and me was
populated by some remarkable people and filled with special memories.
Because she rubbed elbows with so many big
names in the creative world – may I confess that I played chess with Man Ray
some time around 1969? – my mother was rarely in awe of prominent personalities.
Her approach to work was quite Germanic: You come, you do it, and when it’s finished,
you pack up and left. I would say, this kept her quite objective when
photographing, an important point, since she would not let her personal taste
get in the way.
At some time in the 1960s, she and Paul, my father, bought a house in Cadaqués, the one behind the church up on the hill. It was a funny idea, a bit spontaneous, as I recall (she was like that: after selling that house, she bought an apartment in a small Austrian village from the billboard announcing the house was being built). The village was full of jet-setters and wannabes, rich people living a life akin to that of the rois faineants, odd-balls, social drop-outs, artists real and fraudulent, and Dali, of course, who used to stride into the Bar Meliton twiddling his mustache – I remember him, because, as a boy, I would play chess there. He’d arrive a little like an archbishop expecting his rig to be kissed by the faithful. I’ll be honest: My mother though him a little pretentious, and being a classic liberal, disagreed seriously with his approval of Franco.
But when she was sent to photograph him, she packed her equipment, took her trusty assistant, Vaughn Murmurian, and did the job, and did it well. Her first encounter with Dalì, however, was in 1951 at the famous Bal de Bestegui in Venice, which she and my father, Paul Radkai, attended as photo-reporters. She told me once that Dalí made a few coarse remarks about some of the activities he performed in one of his rooms. On that end, nothing could shock my mother. Especially coming from a man. I asked what she replied…. it was a comment about his age.
My mother also did a lot of advertising,
but the photo-reportage was her favorite kind of work. And she was not only an
assignment person. She had an unerring eye for what was photogenic, what would
fit in a good magazine and so, over the years, she collaborated with many
outstanding magazines, notably World of
Interiors, a British Vogue publication, which at the time was brilliantly
edited by Min Hogg.
As a son, as a freelancer like her, but
with not nearly the talent, I find it difficult to separate the private and the
professional. For years now, I have been working on gathering information for a
kind of biography, not a list of jobs, not a curriculum vitae,
but a personal one. So I’d like to close
with a small anecdote.
My mother and I did one job together. It was for House & Garden. The subject was the 18th-century Schloss Fasanerie near the archbishopric of Fulda in Hessen, Germany. She landed in Munich and, in spite of a generous expense account, picked up a small car. We drove the 400 kilometers to Fulda and set up shop in a B&B. No fancy hotels. We spent one day essentially walking around the palace, which was owned by Prince Moritz von Hessen, whom she admired for his ability to work and run businesses rather than jetset away the family fortune.
The next day, she photographed systematically, while I took note of the furnishings in each room, worried details, picked up the history of the castle and the family (with a long pedigree and some tragic events, especially in the 20th century).
A third day’s work was needed. Everything went very smoothly. But there was one little incident that, again, was typical: Throughout the three days, the house- and groundskeeper had stuck with us like fly-paper, opening doors and moving objects around. I tried to keep him out of my mother’s way, because I sensed he was getting on her nerves (as an amateur photographer, he’d keep making comments about photography, which she hated because, as the Germans would say, Dienst ist Dienst, Schnapps ist Schnapps). At one point, my mother asked if we could put some flowers in a vase, because otherwise everything looked too museum-like. The man said casually that vases in the 18th century then were not for flowers, but rather for decoration. And maybe she could photograph it another way… I did my best to distract, to change the subject, to interfere, because I could see my mother’s lips tightening, a slight pallor form along her nose. I knew that behind those sunglasses she always wore, her eyes were sending out 88mm flak shells. She hated anyone interfering with her work. And the gentleman was then subjected to a tongue-lashing that I can only sum up with “You do your work, and I’ll do mine.”
Baselworld 2019 was quite exciting even without a slew of major brands, which stayed away this year.
The trickle of brands leaving Baselworld a few years ago turned into a torrent in 2018, with Swatch Group packing up its castle and kaboodle and leaving a big space free on the ground floor of the main hall in 2019. For the media, it was not a bad deal, since the press center was installed right there in the heart of things. And it left a lot more time to visit those who were at Basel…
Five days, about forty-five meetings, three interviews and many spontaneous conversations about all sorts of topics cannot by any stretch of the imagination be properly condensed into a single article, and these days, even scrolling seems to sap the energy of the online reader …
At any rate, all shapes and sizes were on display, and all price ranges, from Urwerk’sAMC with an atomic time-setting machine already seen at the SIHH and going for around $2,700,000, to the delicate regulator watches of the Münster-based company, MeisterSinger, whose prices begin at around $800.
A coup de coeur is a French term indicating something that takes your breath away. And this Baselworld was quite rich in these, so here are a few that I picked up along the way, certainly not an exhaustive list… And there will be follow-ups for certain brands:
Nature morte, really
Day one,Wednesday, March 21. My first appointment was at 1:30pm at the Ateliers , site of many smaller brands (Czapek &Cie, MB&F, Urwerk, Louis Moinet…the usual suspects). Being quite early, I sauntered over to ArtyA, where Yvan Arpa was setting up along with his extremely talented artist wife Dominique, who contributes her creativity to many dials, notably of the Son of Earth series. Arpa is a small fellow, the way a 300-Watt bulb is small. He’s exuberant, full of vim and vigor, and very direct, which always makes for terrific banter. He started laying out the novelties and other pieces the company produces, rapid-firing the details, a watch with a dial of spokes inspired from motorcycles (“…each one is hand assembled.”), the Son of a GunExtreme with the 6mm rounds in the dial, a brand new Megève with the dial carved like a snowflake. And then there was the Son of Earth Butterfly Iridescent, which was a genuine coup de coeur. It’s a simple three-hander (essentially dauphine hands), powered by the ArtyA automatic Aion movement (made in collaboration with Concepto, 28,800 vph, côtes de Genève, 25 jewels). The beauty is the natural mauve iridescence of the single butterfly wing that almost covers the dial and catches the light every time the watch moves. The luminescence reveals the structure of the wing and gives the dial depth, as if you were looking into a magic fountain filled with mystically glowing water.
Same day, later…. An annual pilgrimage to the small booth of Itay Noy, whose watches – all in limited editions – engage the beholder in a conversation, usually about something larger than just time. And so his timepieces become like small poems, chrono-haikus, or philosophical fragments, or simply good old friends you like to meet over and over again… I haven’t asked him yet for his own interpretations (in my Maximalism, for instance, I see solid straight roots/rationalism on the lower half of the dial, and turbulent, baroque thoughts on the upper half…), in part because discussing it would be like writing the first sentence of a story, which will create certain inevitability in interpretation. Noy’s concept of “dynamic dials” brings liveliness to the wrist and opens many possibilities for the creative watch designer. But what could be a worthy successor to the Full Month, which tracks the day using thirty-one numbers painstakingly cut into the dial over a disk that turns the right number red? The answer is simply Reorder. Also a sandwich dial, but this time it’s the hours that are cut haphazardly into the dial. Noy prefers not to explain the system he developed to display time in this fascinating manner (no, it’s not as strident as Franck Muller’s Crazy Hours). It’s not about omerta, but rather to keep the mystery alive, he told me. “If you know how the magician does his tricks, it’s no longer any fun to watch.” The watch features the movement he worked on together with a little company called IsoProg.
Art and the machine
One brand that has shown remarkable resilience in spite of recession and fitful starts and stops is Hautlence. Their products – 1970s-styled, television-shaped timepieces with intricate engines inside – are not for the faint-of-heart, nor for the classical purist…. Let me put it this way, if it were music, a modern Eduard Hanslick would have had a fit. But, but, but: You can’t deny the effort and the technical hijinks that go into these odd pieces. Becoming a member of MELB Holding, run by
Georges-Henri Meylan, kept Hautlence in the market … After five years, according to Nathalie Cobos, the company came up with what should by rights be a winner: the HL Sphere. Its most striking feature is the hour display on the left of the dial, a kind of blue globe engraved with numerals that travels on three rotational axes to give the hour. To the right is a retrograde minute display with a special twist. Thanks to a set of braking gears, the minute hand travels back to the big double zero at a moderate pace. It allows one to really watch the mechanism at work, from both sides, if necessary, especially considering the artistry of the four conical gears that drive the “hour bubble,” as it were.
Hautlence’s group sister, H. Moser & Cie, has been making a name for itself these past years, though without ever changing its essence: minimalism. In January at the SIHH (Ed. Note: the review is still being tweaked), it presented a watch with a tourbillon, and that’s it. That didn’t mean the owner couldn’t tell time. The watch had a minute repeater as well. Very clever, but it was merely a prelude to the Endeavour Concept Minute Repeater Tourbillon, which has two hands and is all the more practical for it.
The dial is more exciting thanks to the two repeater hammers have been placed on the dial side and stand out sharply on the black lacquer dial. Not surprisingly, Pierre Favre and the Manufacture Haute Complication is behind this double whammy, the same company that provided the engineering for ArtyA’s combo double-axis tourbillon with three-gong minute repeater. The H. Moser piece distinguishes itself by being of manageable size (ø43 mm x 14mm) and with its white gold case, it’s not too showy until one looks a little more closely…
I could mention at least a dozen other watches that made the trip to Basel well worth every minute. Nomos, for example, has gone sportive, with new additions to its Neomatik line that will thrill swimmers who refuse to wear some pedestrian waterproof watch. This sleek timekeeper can take a 300-meter dive. Note, too, the unique bracelet of tightly assembled slats that look like the smooth scales of a supple aquatic creature. From the same region, Glashütte, comes the magnificently elegant gold Tutima Patriawith power reserve and a green Flieger that is taking the brand into a new era of color… all material that will show up in Wristwatch Annual 2020. Some 40 kilometers from Glashütte is Dresden, home to another maker of classically fine watches, Lang und Heyne (see the Moritz, below).
The children are OK
Almost too perfectly, though, my last two meetings of the fair were with “watch-men” whose idea of design is very similar though the outcome is different. The first man is Chris Long, founder and CEO of an unusual brand called Azimuth(which has been in Wristwatch Annual for as long as I can remember)…. A watch lover from his days as a student engineer, Long has never lost his youthful sense of humor and playfulness, and they pervade his brand’s output.
There is, for example, the Landship, a homage to the first tanks of World War One. Or the King Casino, with a baccarat and roulette function. There are some simple regulators (Back in Time), or more complex ones, like the Predator series, which feature a large fang-like minute hand with an opening at its base that reveals the hour on a disk, the whole thing skeletonized for lightness. Others are inspired by sports cars (the Gran Turismo or the Twin Turbo) … When we met at the Swissôtel Le Plaza bar, Long was wearing one of my favorites: The Mr. Roboto, now in brass, a face, with regulator hours, and small seconds for eyes, and a mouth housing retrograde minutes…. inside, a movement modified in-house. More to come on this remarkable brand and its CEO.
Serendipitously, my final appointment of the fair was with MB&F, a brand with a similar vibrancy as Azimuth, though on a different level altogether. Founder and CEO Max Büsser, the creative impulse behind MB&F, not only makes watches and clocks that do more than tell time; they function equally well as works of kinetic art, and like art, at times they turn the world upside down. Büsser works with a growing roster of “friends,” experts and paragons in their own fields, so the engineering and finishing are always top notch, and each new “machine” is unique. But so far, the watches were always inspired from external objects or ideas. The latest in the Legacy Machine is far more personal, as a quote on the MB&F website suggests: “I wanted LM FlyingT to possess the epitome of femininity as reflected by the women in my life, particularly my mother. It had to combine supreme elegance with tremendous vitality.“
“Flying T” refers to the flying tourbillon that is built up vertically in the center of the dial and topped with a single diamond. The area around it comes either in diamonds, a snow-covered field, or in plain black, a deep sea. And at 7 o’clock, a small watch face, stares at the wearer from a perfect angle. It means an intimate moment with time, excluding all others for the duration of a glance . The entire dial is under a vaulted sapphire crystal, which instantly suggests one of those globes, which, when shaken, produces a snow storm. All that’s missing is a dancing ballerina atop the flying tourbillon. Instead of a dancer, though, the tourbillon is topped with a single diamond.
The Flying T can be read at a deeper symbolic level as well, perhaps channeled by the designer. The little dial recalls the moon revolving around the earth. The smooth rounded crystal could symbolize the rounded belly of a pregnant woman, or even a breast, traditional symbols of life itself. And the transparent case back reveals a special rotor, a voluble sun, symbol of nourishment (as Büsser himself states), and also of masculine energy and that of the visible world that meets the mysterious lunar world of the feminine. Of the many complex watches that have emerged from the MB&F forge, this one, in its apparent simplicity, is perhaps the most complex and the one with the most profound story. It tells us that there is a lot more in time than meets the eye. None of us will survive time, but there’s hop in the cycle of death and life, and the magic of procreation that runs through the feminine. The one woman from Büsser’s life who did not see this gem was his mother, who died a year ago. It may be solace to know that we all inherit our mother’s heartbeat, so a bit of her always lives in us and our children.
The Mueller Report is in… but is the real crime collusion, or has the president been using it as a rhetorical decoy to hide other crimes? There is a case to be made that the Trump administration, with GOP collusion, has been preying on the wishful thinking of those who loudly despise the president.
From the jargondatabase: To a large extent, people declare that a project has either succeeded or failed based on whether it met their expectations. Few projects fail in an absolute sense — they simply fail to meet individual expectations.
A scenario: Johnny comes back from an exam and says: “I think I really failed that one….” For days, the kid goes on and on about the failure, … Mom and Dad console him”, his jealous little sister expects, with some glee, and F minus… The result arrives. It’s a D…. Parents scold the sister for being so negative. Johnny, who had revised for 10 minutes, escaped a real scolding for being such a lazy bone. Johnny is an expectations manager.
So: Has anyone wondered why Donald Trump keeps drawing attention to the collusion issue? He repeats the word over and over again, tweets it, rambles on about the “Russia thing” and the fake news business… Anyone with the most basic communication skills would try to change the subject, or just let the matter go… if it really was a thing. So, is he really that furious? Or is it merely grandstanding and throwing red meat for his base to mitigate an eventual bad report card from the Mueller team?
One of the rules of communication is not to call attention to flaws, deficiencies and other warts, and especially to do that vociferously. There are a thousand reasons to oppose this president. But there is not one reason to underestimate the effectiveness of his strange communication, which keeps his base riled up, the GOP terrified, and above all, the media enthralled by so much cheap and flashy raw material, which delivers great product margins.
I’ve had a theory since the beginning of the Mueller probe, and it is this: Trump and his handlers, like Conway, have been engaged in expectations management. In its simplest form, it is like a person going to play a game of chess and mentioning repeatedly that he hasn’t played in 20 years. It may or may not be true, but it either justifies and mitigates the eventuality of a loss, or exalts a win, especially against a strong opponent.The slogan is: promise less, deliver more. This can hide the warts and weaknesses, or downright deficiencies, once the results are in. Anyone who followed the USA-Iraq wars carefully will have noticed how during the run-up to the wars, Saddam’s army was always described in apocalyptic terms, even though in the first war(1991) it had just come off an eight-year battle with Iran and was quite degraded. In 2003, it had hardly been able to rebuild, but the media scoured Roget’s to find the most terrifying words to describe this Incredible Military Force. When the “coalition of the willing went in,” it cut through the the Iraqi army like a hot wire through butter. That victory was followed by a barely suppressed gloat fest … which then hit the real wall of guerilla resistance and the totally predictable, bloody quasi-civil war that then broke out. But it, the victory, was enough to satisfy a critical mass of Americans and the media, for a while at least, while the Bush clowns rejigged their rhetoric and fumbled around in the country they had just invaded until things sort of arranged themselves.
So Trump’s yelling about the Mueller report could be a deflection in that vein, negative expectations. The Resistance expects treason, even the base does (they know their Leader is a criminal, they like him for it). But the report may more or less exonerate Trump of the “collusion thing,” which he’s been drawing so much attention to. This will effectively dash the expectations of all those who have been wishfully and blissfully thinking that Trump is deeply involved in some evil traitorous plot — that his base wouldn’t even care about anyway, because Trump is their weapon against their feeling of inferiority so carefully crafted by Fox News and others. Whit collar stuff is almost trite next to treason, isn’t it?
The GOP, for their part, with the support of said base, will commence howling about Trump having been right all along… about the collusion thing, so obviously he must be totally innocent… Even if he is not entirely exonerated…. That’s the general scenario: On the one side, Congressional committees trying to parse all the white collar stuff dug up by Mueller & Co. that are part and parcel of the Trump repertoire anyway and will be added to the porn payoffs, but that don’t really count for his base, like his moral bankruptcy. On the other side, the base drunk on a kind of false schadenfreude trying to out-holler the Resistance, which will still be pointing out myriad Trump crimes in 280-character bursts. And Trump heating them up, as usual, keeping the country deeply divided.
It’s a little complicated, perhaps, but being simplistic is not a solution, even with this immature and transparent president. A well-conducted campaign of expectations management would explain why Trump has been hollering about collusion, when it would/should have been the last thing to do if he were really guilty.
You see how it works? I may be wrong, but I’ll risk it. Just remember one thing with Trump and his punditocracy: Criminal behavior is unimportant; being in the spotlight at all times is.
This article was updated with material I had gathered two weeks ago.
US news on this 4th of September, 2018, has all to do about justice. And how the current president of the USA apparently refuses to accept the plain fact that the judiciary must be independent.
“He was consistent about this throughout the campaign,” says political commentator Carrie Cordero (Georgetown U.), “and here we are two years later and he is still saying the same thing. If he could he would use the DOJ and prosecutorial powers and engage in political retribution and pervert the system of justice.”
Re. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) was clearer: “We are not a banana republic.” A lonely voice coming from the former law-and-order party known as the GOP. Paul Ryan had his usual “what-me-worry?” blinders on.
While most of Trump’s gesticulations are the circus component of the panem et circenses to hide some emolument agenda, I suspect, this business with the justice department does appear more sinister in its consistency. It is literally anti-American and a serious threat to democracy as we know it. Why? Because he seems to think that a president should have unrestricted power to go after the opposition, and we now know that Trump can suffer no contradiction without going ballistic.
I’ve written about it before. It closely resembles how the Moscow Communists took over Hungary between 1945 and 1949, a process known by historians as the salami tactics. I am sure his former advisers Steve Bannon (a self-proclaimed Leninist, though that may just be to shock the sycophants) and Sebastian Gorka would know about this.
Here again the Wikipaedia definition:
“Salami tactics, also known as the salami-slice strategy or salami attacks , is a divide and conquer process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition. With it, an aggressor can influence and eventually dominate a landscape, typically political, piece by piece. In this fashion, the opposition is eliminated “slice by slice” until one realizes (too late) that it is gone in its entirety.”
Yes, it’s not quite the same, because the USA has institutions, etc…. but the Trump administration has been stuffing courts with partisan judges, and that is simply not healthy.
The real problem is deeper, of course. Democracy is a difficult system. All must participate, all must be well informed, all must be ready to compromise. It is not a winner-takes-all system. It is winner is gracious and shares the spoils, remembering that a large part of the electorate is not of the winner’s opinion. More at some other time.
Note number 2 on this 4th of September 2018: The beginning of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court, which will most probably put a partisan judge onto the highest bench in the land, where he can support decisions for some of the more extremist views of US conservatives.
Watches can be a major investment. So naturally, many collectors, especially of more recent vintage (and notably in emerging watch markets) prefer to play it safe and buy a big-name timepiece. These are more often than not excellent, solid, well-conceived watches … but they tend to overshadow some eyebrow-raising watxches with less PR power, ones that are rare, exciting, and will not break the bank, either.
Here’s the short version of this story: You can get a well-designed, technically classy watch run on one of those brawny, automatic ETA movements: 42mm carbon case, stainless steel bezel, classy black dial and an elegant rubber/fiber strap for under $1000…. But only until July 29 on kickstarter. Here’s the link (Adventure), and here’s the rest of this story.
A week before Baselworld 2014, a friend called me to ask if I could quickly skim over a press release announcing a new brand. I can no longer count the number of times I get these calls , but I’m happily not blasé yet, and my curiosity and inner do-gooder inevitably get the better of me. So I corrected a shabbily translated press release that did, however, describe quite a sexy timepiece called Exploration, I couldn’t help notice. It also landed in the Masters & Mavericks section of Wristwatch Annual 2015, described thus:
“…a 44.5 mm steel case made up of several components and black ceramic inserts, definitely sporty, but not on steroids. The coolness is in the details—the satin-brushed surfaces, contrasting polished beveling, open-worked hands, markers that shorten on the left to make way for the subdials. For complications, he chose a power reserve indicator—the two spring barrels of the customized Technotime automatic movement can drive the watch for up to 120 hours—and a retrograde date hand that takes up about one-third of the dial.”
The “he” in the piece turned out to be Julien Fleury. When I met him a few weeks later in the ground-floor bar at the Ramada (today XXX), I did a double take. Fleury looked like he’d just hatched from an egg, short slightly spiky hair, thin as a rail. He could have been a school kid. But there was something compelling about the intensity of his stare and his very serious demeanor. I was not surprised to discover that he regularly participates in cross-country marathons, a sport that requires focus and self-control.
He is not a watchmaker, he told me off the bat. He started his career in the jewelry trade but had studied graphic design. This did explain the very clear visual impact of the watches.
Businesslike, he explained his concept: He basically designed the watches and has them made by local artisans and friends from his native La Chaux-de-Fonds. They had helped him made the Exploration, and would continue doing so, he said confidently.
Having visited the upper reaches of Neuchâtel canton and the neighboring Franches-Montagnes (Free Mountains) a few times, I realized he was not kidding around. People have loyalties there, and Fleury’s family had, he told me as well, a pedigree reaching into the industry. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool chaudefonnier with a special love for his native town. “Watches that say Swiss made are readily available,” he said, “but none say ‘made in La-Chaux-de-Fonds.” This odd city is indeed one of the cradles of watchmaking in Switzerland. After a fire destroyed the old town in 1794, a new town was designed along the best lines for natural lighting, a boon to the watchmaking industry. This particularly impressive combination of form and function earned La Chaux-de-Fonds and neighboring Le Locle a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
And so, Fleury aimed to render unto Caesar, as it were, and thus rightfully put that trundling, hyphenated name on his watch dials between 1 and 3 o’clock. His second tribute to “La-Chaux” was the brand name, duManège. The “Manège” is the town’s old riding school built in 1855. It was later used as low-cost housing for poorer families and became an architectural ideal of community living.
The start of a dynasty Once all the technical, financial and biographical issues have been taken care of at my first meeting with Julien Fleury, there remained my key question for any new brand: What are the plans for 2.0, 3.0, etc.. Because an idea in watchmaking is only as good as its subsequent generations. He assured me he had a concept, but he needed first to get his first crop into the market.
At any rate, I left the interview with an old quote from Le Cid by the 17th-century French playwright Pierre Corneille: “Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend point le nombre des années.” The young Rodrigue, who goes on to duel a gifted swordsman, who had an insulted his aged dad, say s “To the soul well-born, the worth need not wait for years…”
Three years later, armed with better funding, Fleury got back to me with the Heritage line where he could use his jeweler’s talents, or tap into local crafts for a grand-feu dial or other decorative arts. He was even offering customized miniature painting. It was a clear sign that his brand was here to stay. I made space for his watches in Wristwatch Annual 2018, including one of my favorites whose dial is covered in stylized fir trees in champlevé enamel. This special chaudefonnier art-nouveau motif reflects the local trees in that cold and snowy region. They are also a legacy of the city’s famous son, Le Corbusier.
A few weeks ago, Fleury wrote me with a new duManège product, a sleek, sober, technical watch again (the 42-millimeter case is made of carbon composite), with a definitively sportive feel and story. It is called Adventure, and is dedicated to those who, like Fleury himself, practice elite sports. This means: a three-hander, lightweight and robust, screw-in crown, water-resistant to 30 ATM, a big superluminova-drenched 6 and applique markers for the other hours that stand out sharply on a black dial with a dynamic ribbing pattern. The rubber strap also contributes to the active look, and comes with a coat of technical fibers and color stitching according to the model. Time here is driven by a robust automatic ETA 2824-2..
The watch comes in six different models, each dedicated to a separate activity, which is identified by a color code appearing on the second hand and stitching on the strap. Ball is yellow and stands for football (soccer); Slide (blue) for tobogganing; Fight (white) is for martial arts, while Military is khaki obviously; Motor is red for motor sports, and, finally, Mountain is green.
Twenty percent of the sale of each watch will go to a designated sportsman to help him on his way to success. These include Swiss bobsleigh driver Yann Moulinier (from La Chaux-de-Fonds) , who’s making a bid for the Olympic Games (Slide); soccer player Neftali Manzambi, training to make it to the national team (Ball); Ludovic Soltermann, Prestige Class motorcycle driver (Motor); Zakaria Khelil, a kickboxing and Muay-Thai specialist (Fight).
Getting it These watches will be available online for chf 1390 (for dollar price, check the daily exchange rates), but Fleury has started a kickstarter campaign to get them produced by the end of the year. His deal: Buy one through the crowdfunder, and get a 40% discount….
You haven’t heard this one yet: Four top experts, a micro-engineer, an industrial designer, an artist with a specialty in metalwork, and an accountant walk into a bar. And the barman says: “So, Herr Gerber, what can I serve you today?”… Add a really smart kid, but that would be getting ahead of my skis…
A slightly flippant joke like that above may not be the most dignified way to introduce a giant of watchmaking, but the real cognoscenti will know that the punchline is pretty accurate. This was confirmed to me during a brief and – as usual, fun – visit with him and his wife Ruth during the Easter break. Let me backtrack for a minute.
In case you don’t know Gerber too well or at all: Bernese by birth, but living and working in Zurich for nearly half a century, he has had his platinum fingers in the mechanism of many a great watch or clock over that half-century plus. Amongst his global creations is, for instance, the cool-calm-collected MIH watch made for the Musée Internationale de l’Horlogerie in La Chauds-de-Fonds. Two of his pieces have been in the Guinness Book of Records. One time was for the smallest clock made of boxwood, another for one of the world’s most complicated watches. It was originally a fairly simple pocket watch made by Louis Elysée Piguet in the early 20th century, but a new owner, Swiss entrepreneur Willi Sturzenegger (the “Earl of Arran”) decided to soup it up… Gerber also makes watches under his own name: they are easy to read, and with small touches of genius, such as a dizzying triple rotor. It’s Gerber’s understated humor coming out, a necessity for his version of “innovation.”
At the end of August 2015, I had the great luck to spend a few intense days with Paul Gerber and his wife and comrade-in-arms Ruth. The occasion was one of his watch seminars, during which me and two other gentlemen were coached by Gerber while we took apart an old Unitas, changed the mainplate, decorated it, and put the whole thing back together again in a special case. The details of this exciting process, and the depth of learning can be found here
Easy does it
At the time, I had already developed a deep respect for this dyed-in-the-wool watch-genius. Nothing in his surroundings or demeanor suggested the extent of his know-how and experience. He seemed more akin to some regular Joe, puttering around his little den-like workshop in the basement of his modest house on Zurich’s western edge. But the three-day workshop, besides deepening my knowledge of the art, was also full of wonderful discoveries, tiny clocks, machines, movements he’d rebuilt, gadgets and gismos, and lever arch folders stuffed with thousands of pages and images fastidiously documenting the work of a lifetime.
We met at various events since, and each time he extended a generous invitation to drop by. Casually. And so, earlier this year (2018), I was able to finally take up Paul and Ruth Gerber on their invitation.
It was a sunny day. But no sooner had I arrived, than Gerber took me to his workbench in the den-like basement. The operational word is work: The space is covered with motley items he uses to operate on watches, screw drivers, tweezers, bits of gummy stuff used to pick up tiny screws, a quadruple oil dispenser. There was also a broken wine glass he uses to protect parts from dust while they wait to be assembled. Most industrial watch workshops have elegant cheese bells: “I’ve had this since I started,” he pointed out with a mischievous smile. Gleefully he showed me a device he’d built… just to sharpen screw drivers. “The others don’t work well.”
But the pièce de resistance was undoubtedly a tiny ring-shaped part of silvery metal, stainless steel I assumed, which he picked up with a pair of tweezers and held up to the light. I had no idea what it was. He explained forthwith: It was the frame of the watchstrap moon phase he’s made for the MIH watch. The story behind it was typical Gerber: A customer had wanted a moon phase on his MIH watch and rather than clutter up the dial of the minimalist watch, he decided to sink a small, battery driven moon phase into the strap, an innovative idea, if I ever heard one.
We were supposed to go out for lunch on this, the first real day of spring in 2018. But I had brought a big jar of mustard and spontaneously suggested it would be a great day to grill cervelat and enjoy the garden… Gerber seemed relieved, and I was to, and Ruth immediately set about organizing the lunch, while Paul disappeared somewhere to grill the sausages.
(Chatty aside: Is there any Swiss family that doesn’t keep an emergency reserve of cervelat, that short, thick wiener-like sausage wrapped in natural skin (it caused a bit of a stir about eight years ago when it seemed Switzerland was running out of skin? I guess not.)
Over lunch, Gerber talked about his early days in the biz. The quartz crisis was raging at the time he was doing his apprenticeship. And so he began by opening a watch and jewelry shop. As he spoke, I had difficulty imagining this brilliant watchmaker discussing watch straps with walk-in customers, or confirmation gifts for thirteen-year-olds. And he confirmed my feeling: Being in his watchmaking den, with his fingers on the wheels, was more along his lines. He sold the shop.
A distant connection of sorts flash through my mind. Gerber’s enthusiasm with watchmaking reminds me of a sentence Max Büsser (see MB&F) has made into his company’s tagline: “A creative adult is a child who has survived.” Survived the constraints, strictness, rigidity, Gradgrindish goal-setting of the so-called adult world. This explains his desire to stay close to his work, at home, in his basement, rather than delve in the flimflam of communication and publicity. The marketing masters of our industry love to talk about passion, and urge their copywriters to do “emotion.” But Gerber does not perceive and then act in the spirit of passion (conjuring Hume, here), he just lives it as a cellular impulse. His rationality then steps in and tells him how to implement it in the 3D world.
I mention a young unemployed watchmaker I know, who has restored some surprisingly valuable watches (an Omega Seamaster, among others), and the conversation drifts towards old movements and replacement parts. You’d think it is extremely esoteric and a little dull, but it’s not. Not when Gerber talks about it. It’s more like Wilhelm Kempff talking about piano strings or felt hammers. And so I learn that watchmakers who’ve started cranking a heavenly topping tool often leave a treasure trove of bits and pieces, sometimes even entire movements, for the next generation. These end up in flea markets, or are picked up by other watchmakers to fiddle around with. And are then passed down or end up in a special timepiece that may or may not be sold. More likely than not, it will end up in the recycling container. Gerber has his own collection of composants trouvés, as it were.
I thought his big hobby was fly-by-wire planes…. But after lunch, Gerber steers me to a display case in his living room containing one of his own collections. Standing on a shelf like little soldiers, are a battalion of old Oris travel alarm clocks, the ones that folded up into a hard shell, a clever design. Just for the heck of it, he built a functioning tourbillon into one of them. At some point, virtuosity is the key that unlocks total creativity, sort of like Picasso drawing Gertrud Stein as graffiti on a bathroom wall.
He had more to show me, down in his Ali-Baba’s cave, The Basement. Bellies full, we browsed through pictures of his special car, a Fiat 600 Multipla from the late 50s, adoringly restored. Interesting: Many watchfolk I know have flashier vehicles, but this one has personality… He dug up some mechanical place-name holders that show the diner’s name when a lever was depressed. I asked him about the amazing Earl of Arran watch, and he dragged me – where I had sweated for three days two years earlier decorating that Unitas movement – was a large and beautiful box with a leather insert, for the latest iteration of the (see the article on Paul Gerber, P. 1).
Back in the basement, he shows me the large gearwheels he finished for one brand we shall keep anonymous. He dismisses the actual model they were fitted into with a sly, deprecating smile. But those gearwheels …. beveled to perfection, inside and outside edges, including the corners, which are exceedingly tricky, the three wheels displaying forty (40!) surfaces for his rock-steady file to transform from mundane metal to watchmaker perfection. And that, for several models… He also pulls out a thick folder to show the details of the order. Everything is documented, beginning with sketches, down to the last screw. That’s the book-keeping part. It’s a key to maintaining continuity; it’s a gift to future generations.
I think full circle. When I first left Gerber’s cavern a few years back, I thought hard on what elevates some watchmakers to the highest rank. It’s not just the achievement and portfolio. The challenge is this: Watchmaking taps into all sorts of fields. In addition to engineering, material science, gem-setting, enameling, a top-notch watchmaker will know history, navigation, astronomy, theology, philosophy, esthetics. They are Renaissance people, they are the great (sea) venturers, to borrow a term from R. Buckminster Fuller, who required “…great anticipatory vision, great ship designing capability, original scientific conceptioning, mathematical skill, (…), able to command all the people in their dry land realm in order to commandeer he adequate metalworking, weaving and other skills necessary to produce their large complex ships.”1
The era of the master visionary and maker may be dead and gone in many other industries, but to create a beautiful watch, like composing a beautiful string quartet, you need a Beethoven, a Haydn, a Brahms, not a committee of brainstormers dreaming up target groups. Gerber is up there with the giants.
Buckminster Fuller, R., Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, A Dutton, New York, 1963, p. 17